District Attorney George Gascon's office has convicted seven people for scamming elderly Chinese women out of their life savings, making San Francisco the first city in the country to prosecute defendants in the now-infamous ghost scams. Another case is plodding along through pretrial motions.
Still, given that there have been more than 50 reports of the scam over the past year or so, it's likely that other perpetrators are still out there, whether here or elsewhere. In this case, authorities probably won't be able to catch all the bad guys. But they can strip the scammers of their most effective tool: the ability to gain a victim's trust.
Today, Gascon launched a public education campaign to warn members of the Chinese community -- the con's primary targets -- about of the ongoing crime.
"We know prosecution does not get to the heart of the problem," Gascon said in a statement. "Only through prevention and public education can we stop these scammers from victimizing any more people."
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In the scam, a team of three people target an elderly Cantonese speaking woman. One of the scammers asks the woman if she knows how to find a certain herbalist doctor. A second scammer, pretending to overhear the conversation, says that she knows where the doctor is and that the doctor is very skilled. The two conspirators convince the victim to come with them to meet with the doctor.
After a short walk, they find the third scammer, posing as either the doctor or a relative of the doctor. This person says that a spirit is following the victim's family, and that one of the victim's loved ones will die within three days. The only solution, the third scammer says, is to perform a purification ceremony in which the victim places all of her valuables in a bag for a blessing. The victim goes home or to the bank, collects cash and jewelry, and returns. During the ceremony, the scammers switch bags, and eventually leave with the valuables. More than $1.5 million in cash and jewelry have been stolen, according to the D.A.'s office.
Soon after police began receiving reports of these scams last spring, city officials took action, trying to raise awareness in the Chinese community. There were bus ads, press conferences, and public service announcements. One potential victim helped police catch a group of scammers when she informed officers that she was approached by a group of people who were trying to do to her exactly what she had heard about on the news.
The scams continued to gain more local attention as authorities arrested and charged a string of defendants. By the time the first scam case reached trial last month, the scam seemed in hibernation, if not dead.
Gascon's awareness campaign, timed to honor Elder Abuse Prevention Month, essentially amounts to pouring a bucket of water over the dying embers of a campfire. Joined by Supervisor Malia Cohen and a couple senior services officials, Gascon hosted the campaign launch at the John King Senior Center in Visitacion Valley. There will be another outreach event at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown on May 29.